Martín Maldonado is a beloved figure in Houston. His teammates absolutely rave about him, his manager loves him, the fans (mostly) love him and the front office loves him so much, they've traded for him twice since 2018.
Beloved figure or not, it's time for Maldy to take a step back. No, not out of the rotation entirely. No, Dana Brown doesn't need to go Moneyball on Dusty Baker and tell him that he can't start Maldonado because he's been traded.
But it is time for closer to a 50/50 split behind the plate between Yainer Diaz and Martín Maldonado.
Look no further than Hunter Brown's laborious four innings against the Rangers yesterday. Against one of the best lineups in baseball, Brown completed only four innings, allowing 10 hits and three runs while striking out six, needing 91 pitches to do so.
Brown is now 6-5 with a 3.76 ERA on the season after taking yesterday's loss.
Those numbers don't tell close to a full story. In six starts with Yainer Diaz catching him, Brown possesses a 2.62 ERA. Of those six games, he threw seven scoreless against the Rays, the best team in baseball. He also completed seven innings of two-run ball (both unearned) in his first start against the Rangers.
Diaz hasn't caught Brown since May 8th. The only explanation given has been Dusty offering a hypothetical "what if Diaz gets hurt?"
Maldy has caught Brown's last nine starts. Their ERA working together? 4.45.
And as @Robncypress pointed out on Twitter, these stats aren't unique to Brown, but are indicative of a greater issue across the board.
Note: these stats were before Maldy caught Brown yesterday. The team is now 31-29 with Maldonado behind the plate. Maldonado allowed his league-leading seventh passed ball yesterday, on a fastball right down the middle for a third strike that he inexcusably just whiffed on.
For years, Maldonado has been one of the worst hitters in the game, but he's been a staple behind the plate due to his intangibles, prep work and defensive skills. Well, his defense has nosedived this season. Maldy was worth two defensive runs saved last season compared to -5 this season. His framing was in the 55th percentile in the MLB in 2022. It's plummetted to the fifth percentile this season.
Yes, the Astros have access to data that the general public doesn't, but by almost every publicly available catching metric, Diaz has been better than Maldy (Maldonado holds a slight edge in strike rate with regard to framing).
Diaz has a better throwing arm, and quite possibly, the best in the game. He's caught 38% of base stealers, but according to Statcast, is estimated to have only caught 13%. This is a result of his arm strength. Diaz has the second fastest average throw to second in the league at 85.1 mph (Maldy sits at 81.8 for comparison. Maldy is worth 0 blocks above average to Diaz' 2 blocks above average.
But let's set aside intangibles, Statcast metrics, and general narratives of the Golden Era. Most importantly, regardless of what has occurred in the last five seasons, in 2023, Astros pitchers perform better, albeit in a small sample size, with Yainer Diaz behind the plate.
Now, is a 3.55 ERA in comparison to a 3.60 ERA worth throwing a fit about? Not entirely. Are there pitchers like Brown that Diaz should catch exclusively? Sure. And maybe with Framber's curveball, Maldy is his personal catcher.
But the numbers are the numbers. Diaz has been better than Maldonado defensively. Maldy simply isn't the Maldy of old. And Astros pitchers, again however so slightly, perform better throwing to Diaz.
And that is of course to say nothing of their lineup.
The Astros .725 OPS is 15th in the MLB. Their 3.57 ERA leads the MLB. If by all accounts Diaz is a better catcher, and even if you still want to push an intangibles narrative that favors Maldy, the Astros can afford to give a bit behind the plate. They can't continue to do so everyday in the lineup.
Diaz is hitting .275 with a .777 OPS and 17 RBI. He is coming off of a June in which he hit .310 with an .897 OPS in his first stint getting everyday playing time.
Maldonado, on the other hand, is hitting .177 with a .551 OPS. He's basically a guaranteed out each time up.
In Diaz' 75 at-bats when he's playing catcher this season, he's hitting .343 with a .903 OPS. When Diaz is the DH, he's hitting only .203 with a .618 OPS, though even those splits came up this month as he racked up everyday playing time.
Why would you not want him to catch more with a team desperate to score runs?
And according to Statcast, his quality of contact is indicative of even more future success to come. His xBA sits at .283 while his xSLG is .570, 92 points higher than his actual slugging percentage.
The Astros as a whole would be so much better served with a 50/50 split behind the plate. If Maldy continues to catch Brown "in case Yainer gets hurt," why hasn't Diaz gotten any work with Framber or Javier. What happens if Maldy gets hurt?
It's time to get their rookie some work with their aces. The team needs to score runs. Yainer may be their best bat aside from Altuve, Alvarez and maybe Tucker. When he is in the lineup, they have a threat they sorely have missed without Alvarez.
Diaz has been more than capable behind the plate. And regardless of prep work, Maldonado simply hasn't. His defense has regressed to be absolutely porous this year.
It is vital the Astros get Diaz more starts behind the plate. They can then use the DH for more rest days for their everyday regulars, and also make sure bats like Mauricio Dubón and Chas McCormick are in the lineup daily.
Once Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley return, one of them will be the DH. Yainer Diaz is simply to good to sit. He needs to start getting work now with the aces so he can be in the lineup when the big hitters are back.
A lineup consisting of Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Alvarez, Tucker, Diaz, Abreu, Peña and Dubón/McCormick would be impossible for opposing pitchers to navigate.
If you DH Diaz, you lose Brantley's bat and likely one of Dubón/McCormick as Maldy's bat slides in. Or if you catch Maldy and don't DH Yainer, you again lose one of your best bats and now have two holes in the lineup for opposing pitchers to escape jams.
And that's to say nothing of where a trade deadline acquisition would fit in.
Maldy has been fantastic for a long time. He's such a leader in the clubhouse. He'll be a great manager one day, and I'd be totally content if he took over for Dusty Baker next season. But regardless of narratives, he's not the defensive catcher he once was. No longer can his bat be in the lineup every day when the team struggles to score and their catcher of the future is ready and waiting.
If the Astros are serious about winning a World Series again this season, and expanding their window of contention moving forward, it's time for Yainer Diaz to get more time behind the plate.